Robert Edeson talks writing with Underground Writers’ Jess Gately
“I don’t know a lot about how people write, I’ve just always enjoyed living in my own imagination and that’s where these books come from.”
It is an unusually cold and wet day in Perth when Robert Edeson and I meet at Subiaco’s Café Café. We perch ourselves on the upper landing, with the heat from the kitchen below us, rising up with the aroma of coffee. Robert introduces himself, but as far as interviews go this feels more like a laid-back chat. He is softly-spoken and considers his words carefully before he speaks, but his views on writing are refreshing and unique, much like his books, the most recent of which sits on the table beside me.
Although we start with a conversation about science, before long we start talking about writing and I’m enthralled. He’s modest and generous with the details of his process. Now retired and making the most of his time to invest in his fiction, Robert was happy to share his thoughts on what he wants to achieve.
Robert on reading & writing
I know some people say that the business of a writer is reading and I always think the exact opposite. I think the business of a writer is to live in the world and then do a lot of thinking and then write. So you need the competencies obviously but why would you read a whole lot of novels imagined by other people when there’s the risk of thwarting your own imagination in doing that? There’s a risk of being derivative. I think what’s in your imagination is such a wonderful personalised gift that I want to keep [other people’s ideas] out. But I read a lot of non-fiction and always have, so most of my books are reference books and non-fiction.
On the move from medicine to writing
I retired from medicine four years ago. I’d always wanted to write. Some friends in the early 1990s, non-medical friends who are literary, artistic people, set up a writers group and asked me to join because they knew I was interested. So even though I had this desperately busy and stressful job, I always had this once a month meeting with these people in a completely different intellectual milieu from medicine and science, and had that kind of stimulation.
When I stopped working I cut down to two days a week at first and I was planning to do it for six months as a sort of trial. I really found that I enjoyed my life more and I enjoyed my work more when I was doing less of it. And six months turned into two years; it was a good time. And in the first six months I was off, I suddenly found I had five days a week to myself. For the first time in my life, that freedom and that potential to do something, to get concentrated on. That’s when I wrote The Weaver Fish, and let it go for six months and then came back to it and in the end Fremantle Press took it.
When I did this semi-retirement thing I looked at [these pieces] and realised ‘these fit together in the order I wrote them’. They had characters in common because I liked them and I realised it was the building block to a novel, a larger piece, and it became The Weaver Fish. It’s funny how these things happen; I don’t think there was a lot of planning in that. When The Weaver Fish came out some people asked ‘how long did it take to write?’, and I think my glib answer is ‘a lifetime’. But the correct answer is probably six months, but some of the ideas in The Weaver Fish, just phrases, characters names and stuff, go back to my twenties. I just kept them in mind.
“I think fiction can be much more than story. That’s what I’ve tried to exhibit. I don’t know what other people do but that’s what I want to do.”
On planning a novel
I basically had one sheet of paper with who people were, where they were, like a little network, and the same with The Weaver Fish. In my previous profession you have to be a planner because the art of anaesthesia is planning. You’re always trying to think a minute ahead and contingency plan because it’s an unpredictable science. You’re dealing with feedback systems and things which can really mess up what you want to happen! And then the pharmacology and their individual differences and then surgical consult – blood loss and various things – so there’s a lot of planning that goes into good anaesthesia but I no longer do that so I can be a bit idiotic if I want.
With both books, I basically have two files. One is the draft where I’m reasonably happy with things, and it was pretty much written in order, except some of the endnotes. And the second file, which is kind of the experimental file, ended up being almost as large as the [first] because any problematic paragraphs or just sentences I’d type in that file and then copy it down and change it, copy it down and change it, and so on. You can build pages of repetition in a way or partial repetition. So the word count builds up but it’s really a very small part of it…
On working with Fremantle Press & editing a novel
Fremantle Press are just a wonderful organisation and they produce a nice product: well-edited and well-printed, well-presented, well-designed. They’ve got a huge professionalism about them. In my life I’ve had quite a few dealings with not-for-profit organisations and what I really like about them, and I’m always impressed by the underlying philosophy, [is] that contribution to society. They’re a not-for-profit press and you just see it in the people that kind of business attracts: the dedication and the passion and the competence and the values.
So [when Bad to Worse was nearly finished] I rang Georgia Richter and I wanted to let her know what I was doing: I had this novel draft. She said to me after The Weaver Fish ‘If you’ve ever got anything else I’d be happy to look at it’, which is very nice of her. So eighteen months later I rang her and asked ‘Is that still the case?’ and she said ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, what’ve you got?” And I think she was expecting – well actually I don’t know what she was expecting – but I said ‘Oh I’ve written another novel’ and there was this wonderful silence on the phone. It was nice to be able to say that.
Everything worked out for the best because she’s a fantastic editor. Those display equations – you have to be a perfectionist to get that right and she is very skilled. But then there is of course the literary editing which she is fantastic at.
So we had a good editing process together. She had some structural changes and I had written appendices, but my endnotes were very long and she thought they were too long. And everything she says I agree with; I have complete trust in her. So in fact, Appendix A, which is about fifty pages, was largely reconstructed from endnotes. But of course once I had it I kept adding stuff to it, more and more ridiculous ideas. Like that story about the centurion, all that went in down the track.
“I know some people say that the business of a writer is reading and I always think the exact opposite. I think the business of a writer is to live in the world and then do a lot of thinking and then write.”
On what he learnt from the release of his first book
My first book was received so positively by Georgia that I felt it was a release to do something similar again. I certainly didn’t have that sense with the first book beforehand, like I knew it was not usual, not conventional. I had no idea how it would be viewed, no idea at all. I think it gave me the confidence to do a similar thing: to write a sequel.
On the T.A.G. Hungerford Award
[The T.A.G. Hungerford Award] is administered by writingWA. I found it because I was wondering what to do [with The Weaver Fish]. When I had The Weaver Fish I was looking at some publisher sites and what I discovered was [that] publishers would say ‘We don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts’ or ‘We only accept manuscripts through an agent’ I would walk into a bookshop or read a review and see the name of the publisher and go to their website and they’d say ‘not accepting manuscripts at the moment’ or ‘our author list is full’ or ‘go through an agent’ and some of them would even be kind enough to give you a link to a list of agents in Australia. You’d go to the agents and many of them would say that the books were full: we’ve got enough poets, we’ve got enough novelists and crime writers and so on. It was a very dispiriting business. Anyway, Fremantle Press would take unsolicited manuscripts and they promote the Hungerford prize because of course they are a sponsor and the prize is a publishing contract with them.
The other thing that publishers or agents say is to send the first thousand words or a sample chapter and The Weaver Fish is a book that only makes sense on the last page or so. It’s constructed a bit like a chess game… and I just didn’t think it was a book I could send a sample of that would make sense to anybody; I wanted it [fully] read. So I thought I’d put it in for the Hungerford – I didn’t know anyone from Fremantle Press and I hadn’t been in touch with any publishers, but I thought ‘This is a way, if they’re proper judges, they’ll read it’. Or maybe they would have read the first chapter and think ‘This isn’t going anywhere’. But Georgia said after reading the first chapter she knew it was going somewhere and wanted to read on, so that was a nice thing. [She said that to me] after. I put it in and went to the event and won it! And the prize is the monetary prize and the publishing contract with Fremantle Press edited by Georgia. What could be nicer?
What’s on Robert’s reading list at the moment
I’m re-reading the Canterbury Tales, and also a book on lyric verse from the Middle Ages. I’m actually reading a bit of- well I bought the Quran recently. Just because I thought I should know more about what’s going on. I generally have a spread of books around the place.